As I draw near to the end of my sixth decade on this earth, I find myself approaching that point in life where I suspect many will arrive eventually—I am just about ready to stop trying to keep up with technology inspired innovations. This is particularly true of communication advancements. Just as I begin to discover platforms such as Facebook, my children alert me to the fact that Facebook is for old people and there are now three or four new and better ways to keep in touch with others. You know what? I am OK with being old and declaring that Facebook is the end of my social media journey. I have to admit that my becoming a curmudgeon on social media has been a long time coming.
Years ago, just as I was retiring, I recall the younger marketing folks advising that, if our company wanted to be successful in the future, we were going to have to embrace this new wave of communication called ‘social media.’ The thought was that our markets were becoming saturated and our messages to consumers stale, so shifting our communication resources to social media would surely bring new life and growth to our aging brand. Frankly, I didn’t believe that merely changing how we said what we had always been saying was going to make that much difference in how people reacted to our efforts to attract more customers. However, being in Communications at the time, I was aware that there were times when different methods of communicating could make a big difference on how receptive a given audience might be.
“The medium is the message”
At the time I came to reflect on the words of a Canadian born Catholic communications guru by the name of Marshall McLuhan. In the 1960’s, while writing on the power of the emerging medium of television, he coined the aphorism, “the medium is the message.” By that McLuhan meant that the medium chosen to convey messages shaped human behavior more than the messages themselves. Eventually, I became convinced of the truth of this, as I lamented how the advent of email had reshaped relationships between coworkers. Colleagues who for years had communicated frequently via telephone conversations were now more and more regularly communicating using the impersonal medium of emails. While it was great to be able to communicate at any hour of the day or night, this cold and impersonal vehicle became its own form of tyranny. The spirit of team work and the culture of accountability became one of finger-pointing and blame laying, as the email streams recorded the journey of work from one desk to another. People were no longer team members; camps were formed. I remembered lamenting the loss of a collegial culture and wondered if this new social media was going to become a positive force if it took hold.
Well, it would be hard to argue that social media has not taken hold in our world. I would venture to say that there are few individuals under the age of sixty who don’t have more than a few internet based social media tools that they use on a regular basis. I myself (well over sixty) have to admit to having five different applications on my cellular phone and two more on my computer. Is that a good thing? For me, the answer is probably yes. The applications I use help me to actually be better connected with family and friends than I would be if I had to rely on the telephone or letters and postcards. Many of the applications bring me information and insights that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to because I am too lazy to read and research on my own.
The Ugly and the Beautiful
Sure, there is bad that goes along with the good. The impersonal and inconsequential nature of social media emboldens many to share mean-spirited and divisive thoughts and opinions with alarming frequency. I might even be willing to agree that, on the whole, much of the social media and many people’s addiction to it is not really a favorable development for society. Recently, I am becoming inclined to join that school of thought. The rampant, bitter and downright nasty commentaries on social media in a lead up to the November elections in the United States prompted me to swear off Facebook for several weeks. And when I came back after the elections were over, the tone and bitterness that has prevailed has me seriously considering a permanent departure.
However, as fate would have it, just a couple of days ago I happened upon a posting of a brief video message from Pope Francis on which he was encouraging Christians to use all means possible to spread the loving and compassionate message of the Gospel. I heard him saying “don’t let the medium get in the way of the message” because getting the message out is our primary responsibility. The Pope’s message helped me to remember that it is important to not let the medium become a distraction or to let it detract from the Good News we are called to share. As I reflected on the Popes’ encouragement, I began to appreciate the importance of focusing on what is important. Social media is neither good nor bad, just as communication itself is neither good nor bad. It is what gets communicated that can be judged to be good or bad. In other words, social media is not the issue; it is merely a tool, one of many and one which can be very effective when used the right way with the right audience.
Sharing the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith is a huge communications challenge in this day and age. Of course, there were different challenges in Christ’s time and throughout our Church’s history. The challenge can only be met by more fully understanding and appreciating the reality of what it means to be a child of God and then being empathetic and compassionate enough to help others understand what it would mean to them in their life. As we come to better understand the individuals or groups that could benefit from the Gospel, we will come to identify the communication or teaching method they will be most receptive to. Throughout the history of the Catholic faith—from the verbal sharing of the gospels, the use of sacred art, the distribution of the written word, to radio and television broadcasts and yes, even social media—our Church and its members have been finding ways to respond to the call to go forth and make disciples of all nations. While the Pope did not express it directly, his advice to us might be: ‘Whether you embrace social media or not, don’t forget there are lots of different ways we have used over the years to get the reality of God’s love into the hearts of the faithful. Listen to the needs of others and use whatever medium they are most likely to respond to.’ God’s message of love for all of His children will come through loud and clear to those whose ears are open and whose hearts are so inclined if we care enough to share in ways that most readily engage their souls.
CRYTAL AND KEVIN SULLIVAN
To subscribe to the magazine, click Subscribe